Rugby World Cup Pedigree:
The 2019 hosts have been involved in the tournament since the very beginning and their quick backs seldom fail to deliver on an entertainment front (who can remember their last game against Canada where they sealed a draw in the dying moments). However, delivery on the results front has been pretty consistent as the Asian side have never left their group, opting instead for the early ticket home. In fairness they aren’t exactly in a rugby hotspot, but with the sport now growing at a remarkable pace in the land of the rising sun their fans will be hoping for a bit of a better display this time around, especially after their first ever Pacific Nations Cup title in mid-July this year.
Japan have been to six previous World Cups and, as stated above, they have never qualified for the knock-out stage. The closest they’ve come was in 1991 when they were within two points of Ireland. Results wise, the side have had a pretty tough time, losing 18 matches, drawing one with Canada in 2007 and picking up their seldom win over those well-known rugby giants Zimbabwe, clinching a 52-8 win in Belfast in 1991 while everyone else was in the pub. There have been occasions where the side has pushed some of the larger rugby playing nations close. They narrowly lost to Fiji 35-31 last time around which shows they are starting to bridge the gap as they lost to the same side 41-13 at the previous edition in Australia.
Best Rugby World Cup moment:
Best moments for Japan at the tournament are few and far between and they’ve often left with a heart as heavy as a sumo wrestler. One could argue it could be that game against Canada four years ago, but I’d say it’s not worth getting excited over a draw, besides, Canada are a team Japan were beating regularly at the time. Oddly, I’m actually going to go for their match against New Zealand in 1995 where they lost 145-17 and the reason for this is simple: it couldn’t get much worse and it shook them to the core, triggering further investment in the game and helping build the same foundations which saw them win the right to host the tournament in 2019.
Biggest Rugby World Cup win: 52-8 v Zimbabwe (October 14, 1991)
Biggest Rugby World Cup defeat: 145-17 v New Zealand (June 4, 1995)
Casual observers of Japan could be mistaken into thinking Ryohei Yamanaka is the key man for the team going into the tournament, but you’d think wrong as the player is set to miss the tournament after testing positive for steroids from (and this is no joke) cream designed to help grow facial hair. Clearly the same stuff Hulk Hogan has been using for years. Joking aside, electric fast wing Hirotoki Onozawa is back for his third World Cup. Eagle-eyed Welsh fans will recognise him as the man who embarrassed your backline more than Gavin Henson after he tore it to shreds to score one of the tries of the 2007 edition. He is an elusive runner who has been confusing defensive lines for years so he is expected to shine. He also has valuable experience having won 60 caps for his country.
One to watch:
Michael Leitch is the youngest of an experienced squad. At 22 this is his first World Cup however he led his side at the junior edition of the tournament in 2009 where they came to within four points of beating Italy. Originally from New Zealand (with a name like Michael Leitch you didn’t expect him to be Japanese did you?) he moved to his adopted home for school and hasn’t looked back since.
Rugby World Cup Fixtures:
v France (September 10, 18:00)
v New Zealand (September 16, 20:00)
v Tonga (September 21, 19:30)
v Canada (September 27, 17:00)
Tough to say. It depends what Japan want to learn about themselves from this tournament. They narrowly beat Tonga 28-27 on July 9 and easily overcame Canada twice in 2009 when the two teams last met. Their clash with New Zealand will give them a good guide as to how far they have come in the last few years.
Odds: Don’t rush to your local betting establishment as Japan are on for 2000/1.
Japan coach John Kirwan says:
“Having two of the next three World Cups in this part of the world and the inclusion of rugby sevens in the Olympics will help ensure more Asian kids are exposed to rugby. You have to believe many other Asian nations will emerge as forces in world rugby in the next decade or so.”
Japan captain Takashi Kikutani says:
“We confirmed through the match against Fiji [where the side won the Pacific National Cup] that we can cope with the top teams in the world.”
Despite all the promising signs of the growth in Japanese rugby, I expect many at the Federation will be looking to use this as another stepping stone towards 2019 when they host the tournament. Although patience is not a trait familiar to a country that cannot wait long enough for fish to cook, if they pick up wins over Tonga and Canada they can leave New Zealand with their heads held high.
Position: Pool stages
by Nick Winn